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In Conversation with Robert Hodgin on Solar Transits cover photo

INTERVIEW

In Conversation with Robert Hodgin on Solar Transits

by Jordan Kantor

Robert Hodgin is a Brooklyn-based artist who has been working in digital art for over two decades. He is a co-founder of Rare Volume, a design and technology studio that specializes in creating interactive installations, motion graphics, and immersive experiences. Robert’s work is characterized by an attempt to blend cutting-edge technology with emotional depth and sensitivity. His creative output is very diverse, ranging from interactive installations that respond to the movements of viewers to abstract animations that explore the nature of light and color. He often draws inspiration from natural phenomena like collective animal behavior, fluid dynamics, and celestial bodies, and uses custom algorithms to simulate and visualize their behavior. 
Hodgin has served as a guest lecturer at Rhode Island School of Design, New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, UCLA Design Media Arts, and SCI-Arc, and has delivered talks at numerous conferences. His work has been exhibited in a range of venues, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, Wing Luke Asian Museum, Wired NextFest, Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, San Francisco Exploratorium, and the San Francisco Independent Film Festival.
Jordan Kantor: Hi, Robert. Great to speak with you. It is a pleasure to welcome you back to Art Blocks with Solar Transits, which follows on Ancient Courses of Fictional Rivers and Latent Spirits, both released in 2022. Since you had a conversation with Jeff Davis last year, I was hoping we might cover some new territory this time around. Can you start by telling us a bit about what you’ve been up to creatively over the last year or so?
Robert Hodgin: Hello Jordan, it’s great to be back! This last year had some big adjustments, both with my personal and professional work. With my own creative pursuits, I did a deep dive into relearning Javascript/Processing and getting back up to speed with GLSL. I wanted my skill level to match my vision when it came to creating new long-form generative art projects. I used to be very comfortable with creative coding, but I got a bit rusty over the last few years. Professionally, I have a design and tech studio called Rare Volume, and I have pivoted into a research and development role which allows me to flesh out some ideas I have been wanting to breathe life into.
JK: Moving to R&D and relearning code to slow down a bit: these seem like welcome moves. Great to hear you’re carving out that space for yourself. Before diving right into what you’ve been working on over the last year, can we revisit your earlier projects for a moment? One of the exciting (and potentially nerve-wracking!) aspects of releasing on Art Blocks platform is that, no matter how much you’ve iterated the algorithm in advance, you have no idea what will comprise the works in the series until the random element is introduced through the minting process. With some distance now, can you describe the experience of seeing Ancient Courses and Latent Spirits come to life?
RH: It truly is nerve-wracking. And with Solar Transits, which is my third Art Blocks release, I can say it does not get much easier. There were many late nights during which I found myself going through thousands of outputs, making notes about what parts I felt were successful and what parts felt like they needed more work. This isn’t unique to my process, and I am sure that all artists in this space do the same. The challenge comes from finding ways to influence the outcome in one specific way without accidentally making the rest of the output look worse. I hated those nights when I thought I had solved some random coding issue only to see that my fix ended up undermining other sections in the code.
There were moments when the code produced something that I just didn’t expect and would entice me to refactor the whole project to take advantage of this seemingly rare and random output. When I was dialing in some contrast and brightness issues, I accidentally made everything too dark with too much contrast, and it reminded me of old photos. This got me wondering about the history of astrophotography, which ultimately influenced the project in a very meaningful way.
Robert Hodgin, Ancient Courses of Fictional Rivers #725, 2022. Live view..jpeg
Robert Hodgin, Ancient Courses of Fictional Rivers #725, 2022. Live view.
JK: Of course, part of the creative process can be about learning from what first seems like mistakes. But before we dive into how Solar Transits developed, I’d like to dwell for a moment on Ancient Courses and Latent Spirits: can you talk a bit about two of the outputs you’ve chosen to include here?
RH: The Ancient Courses project is very dear to me, both because it was my first Art Blocks release, but also because it is an algorithm I have been refining for many years and I really enjoyed seeing it in this new context. The original project adhered pretty strictly to a simple map-like palette, but with this evolution of the project I was able to explore new colors and compositions. This ended up being my favorite palette of the more than 20 colorways I created. The palette is Reynisfjara, which is named after a beautiful stretch of black sand beach along the southern coast of Iceland. The place is dark grays and slates with occasional pops of rust-colored sand high up along the cliff edge.
I chose this Latent Spirit because it is absolutely loaded with pareidolia. I see so many overlapping animal faces that it becomes a creepy hallucination. Some of the outputs were much more specifically recognizable as a bear or tiger or moth, but this one does all of those and more. It really filled the space, and though I love many of the other palettes more than this subdued black and white, I felt this composition really captured what I was trying to accomplish with this project.
Robert Hodgin, Latent Spirits #38, 2022. Live view..jpeg
Robert Hodgin, Latent Spirits #38, 2022. Live view.
JK: Thank you so much. I know people are always interested to hear what artists see in their own work. So, to the matter at hand, please tell us a bit about Solar Transits.
RH: Solar Transits is an exploration of a memory. I had the great fortune of seeing the Venus transit in 2014, and I was surprised at how emotionally I reacted to seeing this tiny dot move across the sun’s surface. As a visual artist, I am constantly seeking out moments of inspiration and beauty that can inform my work. And for me, the Venus transit was one of those moments—a rare and wondrous event that left a lasting impression on my mind and heart that I will never forget.
Robert Hodgin-Solar Transits #0-2023.png
Robert Hodgin, Solar Transits #0, 2023. Live view.
Each output imagines the viewer looking through a camera at the sun and capturing an extremely rare astronomical event. There are total, partial, and annular eclipses; planetary transits and alignments, and mass coronal ejections. The constant in every output is the presence of the sun, but the thing that makes each image magical is seeing what else has drifted into view.
In doing research about the origins of astrophotography, I became interested in the history of capturing astronomical events on film. The earliest photos of solar eclipses are from the mid-1800s. They are mysterious and moody and helped set the visual tone for the project. After reaching out to a few photographers, I was eventually able to find someone that was able to turn some of my outputs into physical daguerreotype photographic plates.
Warren de la Rue, The Sun during the partial phase of the 1860 solar eclipse, 1860. The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, Science Museum Group Collection, Courtesy of CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0. .jpeg
Warren de la Rue, The Sun during the partial phase of the 1860 solar eclipse, 1860. The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, Science Museum Group Collection, Courtesy of CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0.
JK: I feel you have captured the aesthetic of these early astrophotographs quite concretely. Can you tell us a bit about the process of working on this algorithm? Are there any test outputs you’d be able to share to illustrate steps in your process of iteration?
RH: The project began rather unexpectedly. I was working on a GLSL implementation of a flocking simulation for a different project. I was exploring initial conditions for the simulation and created a circle of particles in the middle of the canvas. As the particles spread out, it ended up looking remarkably like the corona of the sun. I forked the project and began exploring this new direction.
Robert Hodgin, Solar Transits, 2023. Test output..jpeg
Robert Hodgin, Solar Transits, 2023. Test output.
Most of the challenge came from taming and controlling the flocking simulation. They are notoriously hard to art direct because tiny tweaks can create wildly different behaviors. Most of the development time for this project was spent trying to fine-tune the coronal flare effects without losing the aesthetic, while still maintaining near-real time performance.
Early in the development, the look was very abstract and stylized. As I continued to finesse the code, the look drifted towards something more representational. I wanted these outputs to look like captured imagery. One thing I didn’t consider when making the move from abstract to real was that light bloom would play a big role in making these images feel more true to life. I couldn’t just put a black circle on the bright sun disc because it wouldn’t feel integrated in the scene. There needed to be an amount of bloom or light bleed which normally would be something handled by a render engine. This resulted in many days of development just trying to dial in a gradient that felt realistic in the scene.
Robert Hodgin, Solar Transits, 2023. Test output. 2.jpeg
Robert Hodgin, Solar Transits, 2023. Test output.
JK: They definitely achieve a balance between approximating the look of a photographic image and something wholly more abstract. What should collectors look for in the series as it is revealed? What are you looking forward to?
RH: I have a personal fondness for the seascape outputs which were inspired by the landscape photography of Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. And I love the extreme scale pairings of a huge sun disc with a tiny planet barely visible in the foreground.
I am also excited for collectors to see the way that I have incorporated color and texture into the series. While daguerreotypes were traditionally black and white, I have added muted colors and occasionally a vivid palette to bring out the subtle hues and tones of the solar transits. Each output should have a sense of depth and dimensionality that draws the viewer in and allows them to experience the beauty and majesty of the cosmos.
Robert Hodgin, Solar Transits, 2023. Test output. 3.jpeg
Robert Hodgin, Solar Transits, 2023. Test output.
Overall, I am just excited for collectors to experience my artwork and connect with it on a personal level. I hope that my pieces evoke emotions and feelings in those who view them, and that they become cherished pieces in their collections.
JK: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak again, Robert. We are really looking forward to seeing the whole range of what the Solar Transits algorithm will create.
RH: Thanks for having me back. I am thrilled to finally be able to share this project with the Art Blocks community.
Learn more about Robert Hodgin on Twitter, Instagram, and his Website.

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